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Ferraro Is Back, And So Is The Character Issue

By Bob Benenson, CQ Staff Writer

It did not take long for Geraldine A. Ferraro to know she was back in the big leagues of political pugilism.

Within a day of announcing her candidacy for the Senate against Republican three-term incumbent Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, Ferraro once again found herself battling a fiercely denied but persistent allegation that she and her husband, real estate investor John Zaccaro, have been associated with persons involved in organized crime.

The New York Post reported Jan. 6 that D'Amato's camp was talking about a birthday party for Ferraro during the 1996 Democratic National Convention that was co-hosted by Laborers' International Union leader Arthur Coia, who has been investigated for ties to organized crime.

Ferraro denounced the report, noting that Coia has not been proven guilty of any wrongdoing. But the flareup quickly dispelled Ferraro's stated hope that the character issue had played itself out.

Questions about Ferraro's family finances and personal connections had overshadowed her Senate bid in 1992 (which ended in the primary) and soured her national debut in 1984 as the first woman on the national ticket of a major party.

The Coia incident also highlighted the overriding challenge facing whomever the Democrats choose as their nominee: unseating the aggressive and tireless D'Amato, who has already shown he will give no quarter in his effort to stay in the Senate and keep his position as chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

D'Amato has raised more than $10 million and will surely double that figure. Beyond that, he has armored himself with deft maneuvering on several issues likely to be part of Ferraro's attack.

Months before Ferraro made her candidacy official, D'Amato produced a television ad portraying her as too liberal for New Yorkers. He even bought time to run the ad during the CNN political argument program "Crossfire," which featured Ferraro as the debating spokesperson for the left.

CNN has helped Ferraro remain in the public eye. But her announcement was her first campaign plunge since the bitter primary of 1992, which she lost by 1 percentage point to Robert Abrams (whom D'Amato defeated that fall by a similar margin).

Nonetheless, she faced the banks of cameras and microphones again with confidence and a familiar voice. "The issues that are facing this country -- education, health care, the economy, jobs -- those are the things that have to be addressed," said Ferraro, who has run well in polls against D'Amato and against her two intraparty rivals.

Ferraro led D'Amato by 14 percentage points in one poll released in December by the polling institute at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Conn. She had even larger leads over Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer and New York City Public Advocate Mark Green (D'Amato's 1986 challenger).

Schumer is a nine-term House member from the Brooklyn-based 9th District, and Green is a potent vote-getter in New York City. Both say they will not try to smear Ferraro's character, instead emphasizing their own efforts in public office. The primary is Sept. 15.

Ferraro starts out well behind her rivals in campaign cash. But she enters with advantages her Democratic opponents cannot match -- near universal name recognition and an extraordinary mantle of history.

A rising star in the House after just three terms (1979-85), she was chosen as running mate to Walter F. Mondale in his unsuccessful 1984 Democratic campaign against President Ronald Reagan. After her Senate candidacy announcement, many commentators referred to her as a political "icon," especially to women voters.

And if she can win the primary, Ferraro will face an incumbent who, though seasoned and wily, bears political baggage of his own.

D'Amato has had to tread lightly on allegations about Ferraro's past: During his first term, he faced similar rumors of organized crime links. Nonetheless, he easily defeated Democrat Green, then a consumer activist, in 1986. To win in 1992, he had to survive an Ethics Committee rebuke that he had allowed his brother to use his Senate office for financial gain.

The colorful, outspoken and sometimes abrasive D'Amato has many loyalists, but he has been plagued by mediocre-to-poor public approval ratings ever since his upset of liberal Republican Jacob K. Javits in the 1980 primary and his plurality win in that fall's election.

As recently as June 1996, a Quinnipiac poll found that 58 percent of New York respondents disapproved of D'Amato's performance as senator; 33 percent approved. But the December poll that showed D'Amato trailing Ferraro nonetheless showed him with a 46-43 approval rating, the first positive result he had achieved since 1994.

D'Amato has never lacked what New Yorkers like to call "chutzpah." His audacious bid to unseat the ailing Javits in 1980 was all risk. Unknown beyond his Long Island base, D'Amato offended some voters by making issues of Javits' age and failing health.

But D'Amato has proved time and again that he is an agile politician whose radar for constituents' interests earned him the enduring nickname of "Senator Pothole." Lee Miringoff, who heads the polling unit at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, speculates that D'Amato hit his recent nadir because he had moved away from his strong suit.

After winning his 1992 contest , D'Amato acted the political kingmaker, taking control of the state GOP organization and ensuring an easy 1996 presidential primary victory for his Senate colleague, Bob Dole of Kansas.

But his partisan efforts did not play well in a state where Democrats lead Republicans in voter registration by a ratio of 3-to-2. Neither did D'Amato's attack-dog style as chairman of the special Senate "Whitewater" committee that probed the finances of President and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But Miringoff noted that D'Amato has since tried to come back from "Senator Politics to Senator Pothole."

Back to Potholes

By late 1996, D'Amato was moving back to local issues to repair his image -- and even to steal a little thunder from his Democratic adversaries. He appeared in a series of homespun television ads backing a state environmental bond issue. He is a cosponsor of a bill on health care that is opposed by the conservative Republican leadership.

D'Amato also continues to make his mark on issues that strike a nerve with New York voters. Already more popular with the state's large Jewish constituency than most Republicans because of his strong support for Israel, D'Amato has gained enormous publicity by intervening for individual Holocaust victims and their survivors who are trying to free up family assets held in Swiss banks during World War II.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday Jan. 10, 1998

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